Different doors in practice

From: Death: Friend or Foe 1
Full transcript
Play Audioclip
Download Audioclip
When I was in the three-year retreat, we learned probably 150 different meditation practices. I’ve never gone through and actually counted them. But I remember very distinctly reading a small section at the end of one book that was full of quite advanced practices. And there’s a series of quotations from different teachers in this particular tradition--the Shangpa tradition--and one of them has just stayed with me, really made an impression. It’s by a person called Kyergongpa Chökyi Senge, who lived in the 12th century in Tibet. And this is not an exact quote, but it's to the effect that there are three doors in practice. One is death and impermanence, the second door is compassion, and the third door is devotion/insight. They end up being the same door. And then he said a little bit about each one of those. And I found that, over the years, to be very true. If you look in the Theravadan texts, they explain that death and impermanence is the door for certain kinds of people and compassion is the door for other kinds of people, and devotion is the door for other kinds of people.


How the meaning of a meditation instruction is revealed

From: Pointing Out Instructions 3
Full transcript

Ken: A lot of instruction in Buddhism is expressed in mythic language. I'll give you one example. It happens to be a mahamudra instruction--I thought I'd keep it on topic.  
Body like a mountain, Breath like the wind, Mind like the sky.
Now, I think this is quite a good example. If I say body like a mountain, what do most of you think of immediately?
Student: Rigid. 
Ken: Yeah. Okay, now what's it's like meditating like that?
Student: Tiring.
Ken: Does it work? No. So, is this what it means?
Student: No. 
Ken: No. So, what does it mean? Nick? 
Nick: You become very stable. 
Ken: How do you become very stable? Can you just say "I'm going to be stable."? Does that work? 
Nick: To relax your body. 
Ken: What does that have to do with a mountain? 
Nick: Mountains don't make any effort to sit there like that. 
Ken: Exactly. Say it again loudly. 
Nick: Sorry. I said mountains don't make any effort to sit like that.
Ken: Yeah. So this phrase body like a mountain means to sit without any effort whatsoever. And you come at this by actually just taking it in and letting it speak to you, not trying to analyse it and figure out exactly what it means, etc., etc. Okay.  
This is the language of poetry. And it's similar things with Breath like the wind, Mind like the sky. So, in what we work with in these days that we're here together let the instructions sit in you. Let them reveal their meaning. You'll know when they've revealed their meaning by what happens in your practice.


No Choice

No choice (from Awakening From Belief (AFB08) 00:03:35.70 - 00:10:07.80)

(download into iTunes)
You're in a situation and you can see into it, and I'm inferring from what you said that the more you saw into it, the more it bugged you, irritated you, the angrier you felt. And like many people who practice, you tried to counteract that anger with compassion. We have to be very careful, that kind of direct countering, and there's a number of methods in Buddhism for that: you counter desire with revulsion, you counter anger with compassion or loving-kindness, and so forth. Unless they're practiced properly--there are some subtleties there--they almost always end up in suppression, and from what you described, it sounds like it could be going in that direction. When you think about engaging the situation it's all up again, so I'd like to ask you, and you don't have to answer this outloud, but it's something for you to consider: What are you trying to get in this situation? And one of the ways that I've worked with a number of people in difficult situations is, What are you trying to get from it? And you have to get really clear about that.
Now sometimes what you're trying to get is to satisfy a pattern, which is hopeless, but it's operating anyway... But you have to include that in the awareness. and sometimes it's a very deep yearning-- what have you. So that's the first step, What am I trying to get here? What do I really want? And that involves a level of examination internally. And sometimes it's very hard to admit.
For instance, I had a woman in my office the other day who's in a kind of messy family situation and she has a stepdaughter, there's some alienation taking place, and she was going on and an about this, and finally I looked at her and said, "It stikes me that you miss her." And of course she just fell apart because that's what was actually going on inside, but that was so hard for her to admit to herself. So that's difficult, and once you identify what you really want from a situaiton then you take a look. Is it possible? And sometimes you look and you see, "This is what I want but it's never going to happen." Then you have a chance.

Student: [unclear]

Ken: Am I better off? Yes you are, From a buddhist perspective you're better off because now you know where the edge of your practice is. And here's a situation, you see you're not going to be able to get what you actually want and you can't accept that. Well, there's something in you that can't meet this reality, so that tells you there's something quite deep stuck in you. It's a very good diagnostic tool and now that you're aware that there's something going on in you, you can start to work with that.

You see everybody says they want to be aware, but most people only want to feel aware. It's not the same. When you're aware, you have no choice about what you're aware of; you're aware of everything. So the possibility of orchestrating the world to suit your needs--it's gone. You have to deal with what is. And that can be difficult sometimes.


The principle of balance

The principle of balance (from Warrior's Solution 03 00:19:53.30 - 00:21:44.20)

(download into iTunes)
Balance and imbalance are both indicated by the direction of increase. A sign of imbalance is that things become increasingly harder and require more effort. A sign of balance is that doors just open. Another way this is often talked about is being in tune with things. Balance facilitates opening. Imbalance produces suffering.

Balance is the optimum condition for presence to arise. Imbalance requires you to exert more and more effort to experience things as they are. The implications of that are internally you resort more and more to compensating behaviors and suppression, and externally the world becomes more and more problematic. People and the environment take the hit.


Pain in meditation

Pain in sitting meditation (from ATPII05: A Trackless Path II (retreat) 00:00:00.00 - 00:07:00:10)

(download into iTunes)

Paul: What should I do when my body's in lots of physical pain from sitting?

Ken: That's an important issue. Whenever I'm asked a question along these lines I always remember sitting in Dezhung Rinpoche's living room in Seattle. And a group of us from Vancouver in the early 70s had asked him to teach us basic meditation. And he's extremely kind. He actually wrote a small manual on shamatha, vipashyna, mahamudra for us and then taught it to us. And when he was talking about shamatha practice he described how he was trained. In the temple all of the monks and tulkus who were being trained were seated on a bench, or on benches, and a string was strung. And everybody sat so that their noses just touched the string. [Laughter] And every time the string moved everybody was beaten. [Laughter] Then he leaned forward--he's a very warm and generous person--he said, "This is not how you learn how to meditate. This is how you learn to sit still."

Now, the way that we sit in meditation depends on actually a lot of different factors, not the least of which is the tradition in which one is training. Soto Zen particularly, the posture is the repository of faith in that tradition, so you just surrender to the posture completely. This doesn't always have good results. The story is told of the Japanese man who was enthusiastically going to emulate Buddha Shakyamuni, and he wrapped himself up in full lotus under a tree in the woods, vowing not to move until he he had attained enlightenment, just like it says in the books. Three days later they amputated both legs for gangrene. So as I say, this doesn't always have good results.

Idries Shah, an Afghan Sufi writer--don't know whether he's still alive--makes a distinction between stretching and stressing, or being stretched versus being stressed. Stretching is good. Stressing is bad. And the reason stressing is bad is you do damage to the system. On a practical level what I have found is that it is okay to push in meditation, not just physically, but emotionally as well, as long as there's some resilience in your work. That is, there's some give, or to put it another way, you can still experience some softness. You follow? Once you harden up, now it's rock against bone. That's where the damage is done. And so it's important to gauge one's practice. If you are simply hardening against the pain you are inevitably suppressing stuff. You're gonna pay for that later.

In my experience it is much better to meditate for short periods when body and mind are clear and comfortable, so you form the habit of being really clear and present in your practice. And that's actually difficult to do when you're struggling and hardening against pain, whether it's emotional pain or physical pain. It's an individual matter and you'll have to gauge it. An one of the reasons I have moved towards more and more, unstructured retreats is to provide people with the opportunity so that they can gauge and develop their own rhythm in practice, rather than being constrained to follow a rigid schedule where everybody has to sit for X number of minutes, or X number of hours and so forth. Because that's where people end up getting stressed. The rock meets bone kind of thing.

Now there are people who, when they meditate, are able to work with extraordinary levels of pain, but they've never hardened up. And so they're able to work very intensely, very deeply, but they never actually move into that suppression even though they may be in great pain.


Don't miss the point

Don't miss the point (from Mind Training Santa Fe (MTSF02) 00:38:33.90 - 00:40:18.40)

(download into iTunes)
The key principle in all Buddhist practice is to move into the experience of whatever is arising, right in the present. In the Theravadan tradition this is characterized as the courage to endure what arises. Mahayana, we cheat. Everything's a dream. Vajrayana, or direct awareness techniques, sit and be with everything. Never lose attention for a moment. Don't try to make anything different. The mahamudra instructions: no distraction, no control, no work. Means you're not distracted by anything. You don't try to control your experience in any way. And you don't work at to make some kind of experience happen, or some kind of ability happen. You're just right in what is. It's the same right across all Buddhism. Move right into the experience and be there. The whole point of all of these different techniques is to develop that ability. Whether it's Soto Zen, Theravadan, Vipashyana, visualization meditations, Six Yogas of Naropa, dzogchen. It all comes down to that point.


Levels of training

In this session Ken talks about levels of training, or the process of maturation in practice.

Levels of training (from ATPII04: A Trackless Path II (retreat) 00:15:54.10 - 00:19:10.80)

(download into iTunes)
When we start to practice we learn various techniques or methods of practice. Some traditions train you in just one, and then you learn how to apply that in everything. In others, and I’m thinking of my own training in the Tibetan tradition, you’re trained in hundreds, so you always have these arrows in your quiver and you pull them out.

So the first step is to learn the techniques and learn them well enough so that you really know how they work and you develop facility with them. The second level of training is to train in a fewer number of techniques to the point that they just happen when you encounter certain things--that is, they become second nature. The third level of training is to remove everything inside you that prevents that technique from manifesting when it needs to.

Now as you train in these, you develop a great deal of knowledge about yourself, about how the technique works in you, what works and doesn’t work, and there’s a kind of evolution of what this works means. So as you mature in your practice, it becomes increasingly important to be clear about your intention, because intention itself evolves. And I don’t mean you’ll always have a good reason, “I am doing this because...” That’s at the rational level. As one’s experience of practice matures, it can become much more intuitive in a felt sense rather than the conceptual sense. So there’s “Oh, I need to go in this direction.”'


Resilience in practice

Resilience in practice (from Heart Sutra Workshop (HSW04) 00:00:00.00 - 00:05:37.40)

(download into iTunes)
This morning I talked about two qualities in meditation: resting and looking. They're intimately related, they're both very important. Resting doesn't mean sitting still. It doesn't mean holding a posture. It means resting. It's fine to work hard at your practice and to push yourself very, very hard. But only if there's an element of softness in your practice. Once you become hard there is no quality of resting. And the consequence of that will be that something breaks. It's not terribly good for things to break in practice. They're quite hard, often impossible to repair. I know because I've seen enough of it.

Kalu Rinpoche used to talk about how they stored liquids in Tibet, stored them in leather bags. Fill a bag with water and over time it would become hard. And when it started to become hard it was in danger of cracking, thus leaking. So when the leather became stiff and hard, before it cracked, it was reworked and became soft. Then you could carry water in it again without fear. Other leather bags were used for carrying butter. The oil and the grease from the butter gradually impregnated the leather and the leather became very hard and very stiff. But no amount of kneading made it soft. When the bags came to that point they had to be thrown away. And he said, "Never let your mind become like that." It's very, very important.

So as long as there's an element of softness, of resilience, not just hardness, then it's fine to push in your practice. But when things become hard inside and outside then it's a time to stop. Take a break. Rest. Yes?

Student: How do people see that themselves?

Ken: How do people see that themselves? It's a very important skill to learn. It's very important to tell when you're pushing too hard and to learn how to back off. And if you have ambition and little things like that in you, those parts of you can continue to run even when you've backed off, so it can get a little tricky. That's why I'm mentioning it. Because I've seen enough of the harm which comes from this and it's pretty serious.
Resting also doesn't mean just going [Ken gestures]. There's an awake quality in resting and that form of resting is a more complete rest than being asleep, quite literally, it's more restful. So cultivating this relationship with resting is very important. But by itself it's not enough.


Religions as conversations

Conversations (from ATPII03: A Trackless Path II (retreat) 00:08:12.09 - 00:11:29.08)

(download into iTunes)
In eastern thinking religion and philosophy never split the same way that they did in the west. And the split in the west I think--Charles will no doubt correct me on this--but it really goes back to Socrates and Plato. Because the pre-Socratics, and I think primarily the Stoics and the Epicureans--philosophy for them was religion and religion was philosophy. Like, "How do we live in a way in which we aren’t struggling with experience all the time?"
And you read some of the early Stoic stuff, and even as it was later formulated by such people as Marcus Aurelius, it’s extraordinarily similar in many respects to Buddhist formulations, particularly when they’re talking about impermanence and the operation of attention. You read passages and they could have come out of one of the Pali or Sanskrit sutras, without any question.

And what we’re seeing on a global level in a certain sense, is the relegation of academic philosophy to a rather sterile discipline, and for the ordinary person struggling with these kinds of questions, is that religion and philosophy are now converging again about “How do I live,” around those kinds of questions. "How do I live in a way in which I don’t drive myself and others crazy? How do I make sense of this existence or this experience?" And so forth.
And these are very, very deep questions. They don’t trouble everybody, but they trouble all of you. [Laughter] Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Oh, you know, we embark on practice as a response to some kind of questioning and this brings me to the second theme, which has emerged from some of the conversations and reading I’ve been doing. And that is that one way of looking at religions in general is that they’re very, very long term conversations about certain questions.

Now, what keeps a religion alive is that the conversation never comes to an end. And in particular the questions are asked and answered anew in each generation. And when you look at the history of Buddhism, you find that that’s exactly what has happened. Buddhism has displayed a remarkable capacity for, to use a modern phrase, reinventing itself in generation after generation. And not only in generation after generation, but in culture after culture.



Yidams (from Guru, Deity, Protector (GDP04) 00:11:16.00 - 00:19:47.20)

(download into iTunes)
...most of the time we relate to experience with an identity of some kind or another, a sense of self, of being some thing. We have many of them, actually. We have all of the ones that come with living in a society: parent, child, sibling, and with whatever our profession is: artist, poet, doctor, lawyer, plumber, massage therapist, salesman and so on.

We also have ideas about ourselves, which is another whole level of identity. So even though we may be a bank clerk, we kind of think of ourselves as a poet. And even though we are directing a corporation, we may think of ourselves as a humanitarian, and so on.

And then we have another whole level of identities, ones that usually come from earlier when our lives are being shaped. "I'm a person who does everything right all the time. I'm a person who never does anything right. I'm the best; no matter what situation I encounter, I'm the best person for it. It doesn't matter what situation I encounter, I always do something wrong. I'm not lovable. Everybody loves me." And you go on and on and on. I mean, we could take a poll here, different identities. You all know what I'm talking about, right?

Now the extraordinary thing is that even though we have this multiplicity of identities, and we actually operate as different people in different circumstances with a different view of things and different behaviors and so forth, we have the idea that there's just one thing. We don't even notice that we're switching personalities. We're like the shards of a shattered mirror and we don't know when we move from the reflections in one shard to the reflections in another. So, this is a mess. [Laughter]

One can say--and this may be a little different perspective for some of you--that the function of yidam meditation is to tidy up this mess. You adopt one identity and that's it. [Laughter] You don't get to choose all the other ones.
[Segment about clay cups and rocks, not transcribed]
The purpose for adopting an identity is to be able to let go of having any identity. So, in a certain sense, we're sweeping up the shards of the mirror, and then we discover we don't need the mirror. Or, as Trungpa said once, "If you're going to use a crutch, you might as well use a gold crutch."

And this is a very, very profound method of practice and quite unlike anything in the western spiritual traditions--at least that I know of.
So, we use identities and these are called yidams or deities. What are they? Well, they are expressions of awakened mind. That's the gold crutch. They're expressions of awakened mind.


The princess and the pea

Princess and pea (from POI01: Pointing Out Instructions (retreat) 00:24:05.08 - 00:26:23.04)

(download into iTunes)
Now how many of you know the story of The Princess and the Pea? Okay. Anybody not familiar with that story? Well, it's a fairy tale, I can't remember all the details but the prince is looking for a princess to marry and he's told by a wise old woman that the only way to find out who a proper princess is, is to put a pea under a hundred mattresses. And so he invites one woman over after another and they sleep on this bed. Eventually one woman says, "I couldn't sleep at all last night. Just black and blue. That was the lumpiest bed I've ever had." So, this is the true princess because she can feel a pea under a hundred mattresses.

Now there are additional elements to that story but the main point here is that when you actually rest then you feel all the stuff that prevents you from resting more deeply. And it just brings you right into connection with it.

This is often not comfortable. You're like the princess, you get black and blue. But mahamudra practice and the direct awareness practice, in general, consists primarily of learning how to rest deeply at first with, and eventually in one's internal material. And this is found also in the Theravadan tradition in the four foundations of mindfulness and particularly in the Full Awareness of Breathing Sutra, in which the breath is used as a way of coming to that deep resting.


Culture, dharma and salt

Too much salt (from Guru, Deity, Protector: GDP02) 00:01:36.09 - 00:06:48.05)

(download into iTunes)

Ken: What I want to try to do is, on the one hand, you might say, demythologize Vajrayana, because there's a great deal of myth about it. And on the other hand, try to convey the power and sense of the practice or these practices, or this approach to practice, in a way that you can relate to without going through what are sometimes quite considerable cultural distortions. Do you know of which I speak?

Student: Some, yeah.

Ken: The last few years, one of the central questions I've pondered is: In the post-modern society in which we all live, what is the appropriate form of the guru-student relationship? And to answer this question or to explore it I think we need to take a look at both the cultural form of the guru-student relationship in India and Tibet, and also its soteriological function, that is to say its spiritual function.

In 1989, when Kalu Rinpoche died, I was in a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. I'd been asked to come to the retreat. My expenses had been paid. When I got there, I said to an organizer who had invited me, "I know that there's a string attached, I just don't know what it is." "Oh," she said. "You're giving the presentation on Wednesday night." This is Monday. I said, "Oh. And what do you want me to do?" "Upset the apple cart," she said. "Oh."

Rinpoche died Wednesday morning. Interesting coincidence. So I gave a talk, and the next morning, Thich Nhat Hanh, who was not present at it, swept the whole thing under the rug. It was kind of interesting to experience.

And then he was asked by someone in the audience, "What's the relationship between culture and dharma?" He said, "Well, culture is like the salt--it gives flavor to the vegetables."

And of course, the question that immediately popped into my mind was, "What if there's too much salt?"

There is the possibility of there being too much salt. I think there has been in the past. And that's just natural. It just has to go that way. So, you don't have to add quite as much salt anymore. And that's what I mean about demythologizing.


Right effort, pragmatically speaking

This clip from the second class on the eightfold path is a clear expression of the pragmatic quality of Buddhist teaching.

Four right efforts (from 8FP02 01:02:36.08 - 01:07:35.01)

(download into iTunes)

Now we still have a bit of our Victorian legacy with the word effort. You know we have such wonderful words as diligence, and perseverance, and so forth. All of these words have the notion of nose to the grindstone, you know, you gotta push. The way that effort is usually described in Buddhism, it's very closely related to joy or enthusiasm. Because when you feel good about something you pour your energy into it. That's actually what the word means is that flowing of energy into something because you feel good about it. And that's very, very different from, "I'm gonna push at this and make an effort" etc. Very, very different. 
Now here Buddhist teaching is utterly pragmatic and flies in the face of a lot of idealism, and there is a teaching in Buddhism called the four right efforts. Or that may not be the right title but something along those lines. And they're very simple: reduce the things that you're doing that are making things worse. That's the first one. Second, stop doing the things that are making things worse. Start doing things that make things better. Reinforce those things which make things better. 
Now when you hear this you think, "Oh, it is not rocket science," but it makes a lot of sense. Rather than just trying to turn a switch and move into "Okay, we're just going to do things this way." It never works that way. There's always a transition process and what these four suggestions describe is the transition process. You're going to evolve into a new way of living. So start slowing down or diminishing the things that are making things problematic. And when you get to the point that you can actually stop doing them, then you stop doing them. And then you start the things that make things better, and so forth. 
And what's very important here is to feel that you can be pouring your energy into things, and so that's why when it comes, bring attention into the way that you're exerting effort. People ask you know, "How long should I sit?" or "How much pain should I tolerate?" etc. And some schools of Buddhism you just sit there until you know, you just work through all the pain and that's it. 
But what I generally say to people is as long as you can meet what you're experiencing with some resilience, that is you aren't completely hard, then you can push as hard as you want. But when things become hard, then you stop. Because when things become hard it means that you're shutting something down. You're ignoring something. And that will create an imbalance. So as long as there is some flexibility or softness in your effort then it's fine to push. When things become hard that's when you need to stop and step back a little bit.


How the student-teacher relationship is balanced

What does balance mean in the context of the student-teacher relationship?

Balance (from GDP03 00:15:45.06 - 00:21:18.08)

(download into iTunes)
Student: I've heard it said by other Tibetan teachers that situations in life can be like a guru in the sense where you have a relationship with something that's got personal [unclear]. You project feeling on that situation...

Ken: Mmm-hmm. What's the question?

Student: So the question is, is that the case that situations can be gurus or am I being too literal? [Unclear]

Ken: In those situations they're really speaking metaphorically. For instance, Serlingpa, at the end of Great Path of Awakening, Kongtrul quotes a number of verses. [He] says, adverse conditions are spiritual friends. And he explains this by saying that they do the same things as a spiritual friend does. You know, challenge you to be patient, bring out your compassion, put you in touch with your internal material, etc., etc., etc. So one can use, and it's very good to use the situations in life to learn from. But that isn't the same thing as having a relationship with a person who is a teacher. Okay?

Now relationship depends on balance. That is, one is putting into the relationship commensurate to what one is receiving from the relationship. And if that isn't happening, then the relationship inevitably moves out of balance, and a relationship cannot survive moving into a permanent state of imbalance. It always leads to problems and eventually dissolution of the relationship.

How is the guru-student relationship balanced? Well, I think it's instructive to look at the parent-child relationship. One of the imbalancing processes which is very prevalent in our culture is that a large number of parents expect their children to return what the parents are putting into the relationship. In other words, they create a demand for attention from the child. This totally screws the child up every time. Right? We're all the walking wounded here. [Laughter]
The way that relationship is balanced is that the child, when he or she has children, provides the same kind of attention that they received from their parents. So balancing a relationship doesn't necessarily mean a direct balancing.

So, as with the parent-child relationship there's a kind of generational understanding in the student-teacher relationship. Attention flows from the teacher to the student. The teacher does not place an emotional demand, a demand for emotional attention on the student. That's not the demand that the teacher places on the student. The teacher places all sorts of other demands--but not that one. And a student receives instruction, guidance, presence--all this kind of stuff--and passes that on. That's how the relationship is balanced.

Confident faith

An insightful clarification from Guru, Deity, Protector, session 3:

Confident faith (from GDP03 00:00:00.00 - 00:03:11.00)

(download into iTunes)
Ken: If there aren't any questions, then I'll tell stories. Yes.

Student: Could you go over the faith of confidence again.

Ken: Okay. Essentially, confident faith is described as the feeling of solidity that comes from a rational appreciation. That is, you study the stuff, you think about it, it makes sense. So you say, "Okay, I'll give it a try." And this is one of the reasons why I like Buddhist practice and Buddhist perspective, it's because it actually does make sense.

Christianity, for instance, doesn't. And the consequence of that is, faith as a practice in Christianity has to be stronger because it doesn't make sense. And it's not just Christianity, actually, it applies to most of the Abrahamic traditions, because somehow or other they ended up with a problem. And the problem was, if there is an all-loving, all-mighty God, why do we suffer? The problem of pain which C.S. Lewis wrote about.

Buddhism, on the other hand, says there is suffering. That's where we start. So its existence isn't regarded as a problem; it's regarded as a fact. No explanation required, there it is. And so a rational appreciation is for many people an important starting point. And I know this from my work with people who are not particularly into spiritual stuff. You know, if you want to get them to do something, it's got to make sense to them 'cause they're not going to do it out of clear appreciation or longing or anything like that. Okay?


A contradiction in terms

Thanks to Christy for unearthing this gem from Guru, Deity, Protector, session 3.

Contradiction (from GDP03 00:04:19.03 - 00:08:40.00)

(download into iTunes)

John: Do you have to appreciate yourself or love yourself before having the confidence to do that, the faith of longing?

Ken: No, I don't think so. No.

John: Thinking back upon the concept of self-love. Pema Chodron talks about it...

Ken: Well, in Tibetan, and I really don't know Pali well enough--but I really doubt in Pali, and certainly not in Tibetan and Sanskrit to my knowledge, the idea of self-love or self-compassion is a contradiction in terms. And we have these concepts flying around really because of the influence of Western psychology.

In Tibetan Buddhism for instance, the wish that others be free of suffering is called compassion. You want others to be free of suffering, that's compassion. The wish thatyou be free of suffering is not called self-compassion. It's called renunciation. Or if you want another translation it's called determination. I want to be free of suffering, I gotta do something about it--I gotta get out of this mess. And so that is the wish thatI want to be free of suffering is disenchantment with the current state of affairs, etc., etc., which leads to that renunciation.

And the capacity to be present with your own pain, that's not self-compassion--that's mindfulness. That's what mindfulness is--just that. I tend to feel--and this may be a bit harsh on my side--you know, it wouldn't be the first time--that these concepts such as self-love, self-compassion, self-forgiveness are often covert or not so covert ways of protecting a very explicit sense of self that does not want to meet the actual state of affairs.


Thoughts come and thoughts go

This clip is from the retreat, Releasing Emotional Reactions, session 6.

If you have more time listen to the lead up to this section here.

Thoughts come and go (from RER06 00:07:09.50 - 00:09:29.30)

(download into iTunes)
Thoughts come and thoughts go....
In that simple sentence, there is the key to freedom. A thought comes: “I’m angry.” And when that thought arises, frequently we don’t recognize it as a thought. It becomes a fact. So now we’re angry. And all kinds of things follow from that, usually not very helpful things. But all of you have enough experience in your meditation to know that if you sit, and the thought “I’m angry” arises, and you do absolutely nothing, it wanders around and then it goes. So thoughts come, and thoughts go. That’s one of the doors to freedom—if you live it. It’s not enough to understand it intellectually. One has to live it. So this method of practice is very much about living the direct experience of mind just as it is.


The form your practice takes is unique to you

A short clip from the retreat, A Trackless Path II, on the individuality of practice.

Uniqueness (from ATPII03: A Trackless Path II (retreat) 00:30:18.00 - 00:31:01.09)

(download into iTunes)

I think it is very important that as you engage in spiritual practice, you honor the fact that the factors in your life that made you who you are, are unique to you. And the form your practice takes is also going to be unique to you, and the understanding, insights and the way that you come to terms with these deep questions in life is also going to be unique to you. I find that there’s value in this. And the most significant value is that it stops this dreaded comparison game.


Changing the metaphor for spiritual practice

A changing metaphor (from ATPII03: A Trackless Path II (retreat) 00:02:04.00 - 00:03:58.06)

(download into iTunes)
Since last year I’ve made a point of having conversations with a number of people on different aspects of Buddhist practice, and actually more generally on religion, and even more generally how people think of their experience of life. And another avenue of exploration of that has been a certain amount of reading. And one of the things that I’ve become aware of through this is that there is a very significant shift taking place globally in all of the major religions, and probably all of the religions, but it’s evident in the major ones because of the level of resistance to it.
And the shift is in a fundamentally different conception of what religious practice or spiritual practice is--and I’m not going to get into the making the distinction between religion and spiritual practice for our purposes--between transcending the human condition, which has been the defining metaphor for spiritual practice for two or three thousand years at least, to embracing the human condition.


Rhythms of practice

From the second of Ken's talks on the Eightfold Path...

Rhythms (from 8FP02 01:07:35.01 - 01:11:30.01)

(download into iTunes)
Very much connected with effort is our capacity. And we build capacity by exerting ourselves and stretching ourselves in our exertion, and then resting. If we just push all the time we wear things out, we wear out, and we break down. And that doesn't matter whether it's physical, emotional, or mental, or spiritual.

I was listening to a report, on I think it was NPR. It was actually BBC World News, about the Colonel who heads the bomb disposal unit in the British Army who's retiring or quitting his job. And he said that in earlier times people could do this because they weren't meeting that many bombs to dispose of. But now they would be disarming or disposing of fifteen to thirty devices a day! And every one of these is a life-threatening situation.

He says when people do this, they can only do this for a certain period of time, and then they need a break. [Laughter] And apparently it takes six to eight years to train somebody with a sufficient level of experience that they can do this work. Can you imagine having to bring that quality of attention to something of that frequency when your life is on the line over and over again? So where it's really costly, they recognize the importance of taking a break.

And I found this in my own practice certainly. You can push, but at a certain point something sets in, and if you push now you break something in you, and that is not helpful at all. It's never helpful. That's when you step back and you learn to work with the rhythms of practice.

And the last point I will make on effort, in terms of capacity--I came across this in a book I was reading--there are four dimensions to capacity. One is strength: how much effort you can actually make. Second is endurance: how long can you make the effort. Then there's flexibility: how many different ways can you make the effort; how many different situations. Because some people can be very very good here and just hopeless over there. And the fourth is resilience: how quickly do you recover.

And all of these are best trained by stretching yourself and then resting. Stretching yourself, and sometimes the periods of stretching may be several days or something like that or several hours. Depending--that you'll work out. But it's that rhythm of pushing and then stepping back, pushing and then stepping back that builds your capacity and builds your ability to make greater and greater efforts.

So again, you can feel in all of that, or see in all of that how much to bring attention into the experience of making an effort. And see, you know, is energy flowing into this naturally and joyfully? Then it's good.



In Making Things Happen Ken talks about four foundations of success. And he begins by talking about what success means from a spiritual point of view...

Success (from MTH02 00:03:33.00 - 00:06:33.00)

(download into iTunes)
Success--well, I've just used the phrase, worldly success--is defined by the eight worldly concerns. Some of you are familiar with these: happiness, unhappiness; gain, loss; fame, obscurity; respect and distain. So that a person who is happy, wealthy, famous, and respected, we usually say this is a success. A person who is unhappy, poor, obscure and disdained, we usually say is a failure. These are the criteria for success and failure that are defined by society. It's why we have the wonderful phrase in Buddhism, the winds of the eight worldly concerns.

There's a lovely story from China about that, about the chan master who went to see a professor who loudly proclaimed wherever he went that he was free from the winds of the eight worldly concerns. So he went to his residence, knocked on the door. He wasn't home. He went in, took out a piece of paper and wrote an exquisite calligraphy (we'll call the professor, Professor Lee), "Professor Lee is a fart," and left it on Professor Lee's desk. Went back to his place, which was on the other side of the Yangtze River.

Well, Professor Lee arrived home, saw this, and could tell immediately who wrote it by the calligraphy. Stormed out of his house. Went down to the Yangtze River, and rented a ferry, got across. Stormed into the chan master's house and said, waving the piece of paper, "How dare you write this? Don't you know who I am?" And the chan master said, "Yes, certainly I've heard of Professor Lee, the great Professor Lee who is free from the winds of the eight worldly concerns. But it seems he's been blown across the Yangtze River by a little puff of air."

Success, in the way that we're talking about here, is simply the ability to implement your intention. In other words, to bring what you want to see happen into being. Now this is very important from a spiritual point of view.


The nesting bird

Ken uses many teaching stories. This is one of my favourites...

Bird teacher (from AFB09a 00:20:24.03 - 00:22:35.05)

(download into iTunes)

I encourage you not to analyze. The understanding that we develop or uncover with this practice is a direct knowing. It is not a deductive knowing, which is always a product of the intellect. You can't trust it.

Uchiyama Roshi talks about a bird sitting on her nest. And the bird sits on the eggs, and every now and then she gets up, turns all the eggs over with her beak. [Unclear] Amazing. It's created a question in science. How does she know when to turn the eggs over? What kind of biological clock mechanism is there? Well, after a few investigations they discovered there was no biological clock. She just gets too hot. So she turns the eggs over. Now she's cool. The result is that the eggs are evenly warmed and they hatch properly.

That's the kind of sensitivity that we develop here. You're so in touch with your own experience, so totally in touch with your own experience, that by responding to that, you actually respond with what is appropriate in the world.


Two qualities to develop: resting and looking

Two qualities to develop; resting and looking (from Heart Sutra 04) 00:00:00.00 - 00:13:35.50)

(download into iTunes)
This morning I talked about two qualities in meditation, resting and looking. They’re intimately related, and they’re both very important. Resting doesn’t mean sitting still. It doesn’t mean holding a posture. It means resting. It’s fine to work hard at your practice and to push yourself very, very hard. But only if there’s an element of softness in your practice. Once you become hard there is no quality of resting. And the consequence of that will be that something breaks. It’s not terribly good for things to break in practice. They’re quite hard, often impossible to repair. I know because I’ve seen enough of it.Kalu Rinpoche used to talk about how they stored liquids in Tibet. Store them in leather bags. Fill a bag with water and over time it would become hard. And when it started to become hard it was in danger of cracking, thus leaking. So when the leather became stiff and hard, before it cracked, it was reworked and became soft. Then you could carry water in it again without fear. Other leather bags were used for carrying butter. The oil and the grease from the butter gradually impregnated the leather, and the leather became very hard and very stiff. But no amount of kneading made it soft. When the bags came to that point they had to be thrown away. And he said, “Never let your mind become like that.” It’s very, very important. 
So as long as there’s an element of softness, of resilience, not just hardness, then it’s fine to push in your practice. But when things become hard inside and outside then it’s a time to stop. Take a break. Rest. Yes? 
Student: How do people see that themselves? 
Ken: It’s a very important—how do people see that themselves—it’s a very important skill to learn. It’s very important to tell when you’re pushing too hard and to learn how to back off. And if you have ambition and little things like that in you, those parts of you can continue to run even when you’ve backed off, so it can get a little tricky. That’s why I’m mentioning it. Because I’ve seen enough of the harm which comes from this and it’s pretty serious. Resting also doesn’t mean just going [Ken gestures/acts]. There’s an awake quality in resting, and that form of resting is a more complete rest than being asleep. Quite literally, it’s more restful. So cultivating this relationship with resting is very important. But by itself it’s not enough. 
We also have to learn to look. Because there’s an element of seeing, and you simply can’t see if you don’t look. Unfortunately, the way most people look falls into two categories so they’re somewhat related. One is to step back and look. Become the observer. This is not conducive at all. In mahamudra tradition in which I was trained, we make no use of the observer at all. We regard it as a distraction. I know in other traditions such as the Gelugpa and the Theravadan it’s regarded as very important. We regard it as a distraction. You have to learn how to look while you are in the experience. You aren’t looking at the experience; you are looking in the experience. That’s a little different. 
The other problem that many people fall into with looking, we can call the attorney problem. No offence to any attorneys who may be here. I have several in retreat. They regularly take offence [unclear]…it works out…and among my students. Inexperienced and unskilled attorneys do not know when to stop asking questions. They ask too many questions. And that’s what often happens with people who look. Because we develop the quality of looking by asking questions. I asked a few questions today; they caused you to look in certain ways. But once you’re looking, the question doesn’t help you do any more. You rest in the looking. That’s very important. 
So, I asked this morning, “What experiences all of this?” And you look. And it’s just like asking, “What’s that up there?” And people don’t go, “I wonder what that is up there? Hmmm?” You don’t think about it, you look. And that’s the quality that you want in the practice. You look; and then you rest in the looking. Putting those two things together is very, very important. When you can rest in the looking and look in the resting, then you’re practicing the perfection of wisdom. Because what do you see when you look? Anybody. What do you…what do you say there? Kent. 
Kent: Yeah, not much. 
Ken: Well, I think you have to go a little further than that. What do you see when you look? Not much. 
Kent: I mean there’s nothing you can really identify. So just to look in itself… 
Ken: What do you see when you look? I don’t think it is “not much.” What do you see? 
Kent: I see you. [Laughter] 
Ken: Look at your mind. What do you see? Anybody? 
Students: Nothing. 
Ken: Nothing. You see nothing whatsoever. How long can you look at nothing whatsoever?


Pride and other reactive emotions

Reactive emotion (from GDP05 00:00:00.00 - 00:04:43.02)

(download into iTunes)
Ken: Let's begin with any questions about the practice. No questions?

Student: A case of clear directions.

Ken: Pardon?

Student: A case of clear directions.

Ken: Oh dear, I'll have to muddy it up next time. John?

John: Is pride an attribute?

Ken: Pride isn't. Pride is usually regarded as an emotion. Why?

John: I'm just trying to figure it in a more positive way, it's almost like arrogance.

Ken: Yeah pride, arrogance.

John: But you're not really suffering from it. [Laughter]

Ken: Most of the people I know who are proud aren't suffering from it at all.

John: That's what I'm saying.

Ken: Most of the people I know who get angry don't suffer from it. Everybody else does. That's the characteristic of a reactive emotion. You're discharging the energy so that you don't get to feel it--everybody else does. That's why you're expressing it, so you don't have to feel it. So what's the question behind all this?

John: Well, I got totally thrown off this morning when I came in for an interview and...

Ken: Well who, who did that? [Laughter]

John: That's because you turned it around a bit.

Ken: Yes.

John: Something that was more, that I [unclear]

Ken: No, keep going: this is important.

John: I'm trying to think of what I can...how I started out because I...you ended up saying you wouldn't deem to even consider that those people were effecting you.

Ken: That's right.

John: And deem that your own self-interest that's provoking it or your own "self-betteration".

Ken: Yeah, if you're proud, right, and some little pip-squeak takes issue with something that you've done, does this affect you?

John: Yes.

Ken: I mean if you're really, really proud and even if someone has the temerity to speak to you, which they shouldn't, of course.

John: Yeah, I get that.

Ken: What's the awakened quality here?

Student 1: Vajra pride.

Ken: Yes, but what's the specific quality?

John: Dignity?

Ken: Close.

Student 2: Equanimity.

Ken: Yes. You're not disturbed by anything. Good. Bad. You sail through it all. Everything's the same. So live proud.


The four horses

The four horses (from GDP01b 00:05:03.00 - 00:08:23.00)

(download into iTunes)

And what I found is something that Suzuki Roshi writes about and I've talked to you about it before. There's a sutra in Theravadan tradition which describes four horses: the horse which gallops at the wish of the rider; the second horse gallops when he catches a glimpse of the whip out of the corner of his eye; the third horse gallops when he feels the pain of the whip on his body; the fourth horse doesn't gallop until he feels the pain of the whip in the marrow of his bones. And as Suzuki Roshi points out, when we hear this we want to be that first horse. Can't do that, then the second one. But then he points out that for the practice of Zen, it doesn't make any difference. And in fact, the fourth horse is actually the best one, because when you really are struggling to use your practice in the depths of your confusion and reactivity, then it's real. And I've observed this. Many, many people I've met, who seem to have a much easier time with practice, and most of them are missing something.

So, don't look for a form of practice which makes things easier. Actually you want to look for a form of practice, not necessarily which makes things harder--that's not so productive--but brings you in touch with where you are most confused. It's not the same thing. This is a form of practice that is suitable for you.


Mind and body relax

Mind and body relax (from TAN33: Then and Now (class) 00:59:34.00 - 01:04:05.00)

(download into iTunes)
Now we come to the three kinds of meditation: abiding in bliss, accumulating good qualities, and benefiting sentient beings. And again, I want you to think of this as stable attention, not as meditative concentration.

Now, the phrase that I'm grateful for here comes from Gunaratana--who's a Theravadin teacher; I think he's in Virginia. He's written a couple of books. The one I know better is Mindfulness in Plain English. And he's a wonderful meditation teacher. And he summed up this aspect of meditation practice with these words:

When the mind joins with the object of attention, mind and body relax.

It's said so simply and so clearly, I could even understand it, which is very nice. This is why I emphasize resting in the experience of breathing, because what I'm trying to do is through the instruction create the conditions so that mind joins with the experience of breathing. When that happens mind and body relax. What you're experiencing, Helena, is you relax and things open, and you just aren't quite used to that yet. But there's nothing really wrong in that, it's just different from what you're used to experiencing.

And that relaxation, when we allow it, can be quite profound. It can be so profound that any sense of self drops away which gets a little strange. In that resting, then--and this varies a great deal from person to person--you'll start to experience pleasant sensations, which can be quite explicit or quite subtle, usually first in the body and then in the mind. And people who are really able to rest experience a very, very high degree of pleasure (hence bliss) in body and mind together.

As Dezhung Rinpoche described it when he was teaching this stuff many years ago, he said, "You feel like your spine is made of gold coins stacked one on the other." You know, expressions, descriptions like that, so it can be quite dramatic. This isn't something that I have an intimate connection with, because I have certain physical problems which have made meditation difficult. This kind of stability and just deep, deep resting actually, is the major aspect of meditation that I've worked in. I've learned a lot from having to work with it.

But the feeling, that quality of pleasure or bliss just permeating mind and body, something that many, many people have described to me. And all that is, is an indication of a quiet mind. It means that your attention is stable. And that's good because it's creating the conditions, the internal conditions, for you to be able to practice. It's not an end in itself. That's very important. Some people will think, "Oh, this is great." And there's many, many stories of people confusing the quiet, blissful mind for enlightenment or being awake. And they aren?t the same at all.


Making the big decisions of life

From: Eightfold Path 1
Full Transcript

Ken: Other questions? Joe.

Joe: So in these terms, what would be a suitable basis for making life decisions? [Laughter]

Ken: Oh dear!

Joe: You’re going to take advantage of me now I think. I can see it coming. [Laughter]

Ken: Well, I’m tempted to answer this easily for me but I am not sure that it's helpful for you. And the easy answer for me, which is no help to you, is there is no basis for making life decisions, but that’s not terribly helpful to you. So that’s why I was pausing because I didn't think that would be helpful.

Knowing your experience as completely as you are capable of in each moment.

Does this guarantee that everything is going to work out? No. But, particularly if there's any important decision, you really make the effort to experience everything connected with it and every possible ramification as deeply as you are capable of, then whatever you decide...let me construct this better. Whatever the result is of your action you’ll know you've given it your best shot. And that’s about all you can really do, because we can’t know what the results or the consequences of any action are going to be.

There's a story--which is usually told to illustrate the working of impermanence--about this farmer who has one horse. And one day the horse escapes from his corral. And all the neighbors say, "Oh, that's a tragedy." And the farmer says, "Well, we'll see." And a couple of weeks later the horse comes back with another horse. It's found a mate in the wild and it's come back. So now the farmer has two horses and the neighbors say, "Well, that's wonderful." And the farmer says, "Well, we'll see." A week later the farmer's son is breaking in the new horse and he's thrown and his hip is broken, and the neighbor's all say, "Ah, that's too bad, that's really bad for your son." And the farmer says, "We'll see." And a month later an army moves through conscripting all able young men. Well the farmer's young son can't because his hip's broken. So we just don't know. Circumstances change. So all we can do is bring our attention to what our experience is right now as completely and as deeply as we're capable of. And then we decide.

Now one of the ways that I do that sometimes when people come to me with a difficult decision. I will ask them to describe what the worst case scenario is for each of the avenues. What's the worse thing that can happen if you take path A, what's the worse thing that could happen if you take path B? They usually look at me and ask, "Why are you asking me this?" I say, "Just bear with me." So they'll describe what the worst case is. "Okay, which of those two worse cases can you live with?" Oh! That can be a basis for making a decision. But that's only one way. Does this help?


A way to know peace

Peace (from HSW03 01:14:36.00 - 01:32:13.05)

Therefore, Shariputra, because, for bodhisattvas, there is no attainment, they rest, trusting the perfection of wisdom. With nothing clouding their minds, they have no fear. They leave delusion behind and come to the end of nirvana. [An Arrow to the Heart, p. 3]

This is the last step. And its very interesting, in tradition after tradition of Buddhism you find these same four steps are repeated in different ways. In the mahamudra tradition you have experience is empty, no, experience is mind, mind is empty, emptiness is freedom, freedom is natural presence. That's the basic paradigm of the Kagyu tradition of mahamudra.

In the teachings of Maitreya you have the wise come to know that there is nothing other than mind. And then they come to know that mind itself is not a thing, letting go of even these two knowings. And then they come to know that these two knowings are not things, and letting go of even of this knowing they rest in totality. So another four steps. You find the same thing in dzogchen tradition, over and over again you find this.

Here in the Heart Sutra: Because there is no attainment, they rest trusting the perfection of wisdom. You have to read the Heart Sutra or any of these texts very carefully.

Therefore Shariputra, because for bodhisattvas there is no attainment, they rest, trusting in the perfection of wisdom.

This is one of the meditations we did this morning. When you rest that way, bit by bit your mind becomes clear. With nothing clouding their minds. You leave delusion behind, you even leave the idea of nirvana behind. What is the point of practicing Buddhism? Buddha was asked this during his life. He always replied, "I teach two things. Suffering and the end of suffering." This practice despite some of the vocabulary, is not about truth. We use terms like awakening, freedom but those obscure what it's really about. It's about peace. The end of suffering is peace.

People think and many people practice because they think they're going to get something. I can assure you if you practice properly you're going to get nothing what so ever. But you may conceivably find some peace. Thich Nhat Hahn says this quite well, "If you want to be peaceful, you have to enjoy peace."

There are many parts to this that don't enjoy peace. These are the night visitors, the monsters under the bed, the creatures in the basement. You can't kill them, you can't make them go away, you can't transform them. If you could do any of that stuff you would have taken care if it already. But you can learn how to be with them. In a way that you are at peace. There are very significant things that flow from this. In the words of the Heart Sutra:

All the buddhas of the three times, by trusting this perfection of wisdom, fully awaken in unsurpassable, true, complete awakening.[An Arrow to the Heart, p. 3]

The young boy looked at the emperorAnd cried out, "Is he insane?"
It's one thing to see things as they are
It's another to start a campaign.

[An Arrow to the Heart, p. 104]

With all these fancy, high-sounding words you'd think something special had happened. Or is this a case of my buddhahood is better than your buddhahood?

Does awakening stop you from dying? You can still be shot, poisoned, and if not, you then have to face the inevitable outcome of old age. Does it make you more intelligent? You don't suddenly understand molecular biology, micro-economics, or systems theory. Does it stop you from being harmed? You aren't immune to cancer, strokes, or flu bugs. Does it help you save the world? Good question. The world may pay attention to you or what you have to say- or not. It's unsurpassable because there is nowhere to go. It's true because there is nowhere to hide mistake or error. It's complete because it includes everything you experience. So this complete awakening is simply a way of being fully and completely in our experience. In order to do that, we have to be completely at rest. Which is why you rest trusting the perfection of wisdom. There is only one way to be completely at rest and that is to trust nothing whatsoever. You just rest. And if you rest this deeply, you will perhaps find a way to know peace.


The function of a thought

In the talk, What to do about Christmas, Ken gives us a little nugget. Often we hear about thoughts but not what thoughts /stories work to destroy-our attention. Once we're off and running it's hard to stop them. BUT, for me the construct that thoughts take me away for a reason has been helpful in dissolving those stories/thoughts. After hearing this talk I now ask myself, what experience am I avoiding by this story?

The function of a thought (from What to Do about Christmas? 00:09:37.5 - 00:12:20.0)

So what I would like you to do now is to take any one of the things that you thought of you regret and move right into the experience of regret. Not with a sense of chastising or beating yourself up because that is really not fruitful. It happened for whatever reason, and when you move into this there is going to be a natural tendency to start thinking about “Why did I do this” or “How could I have done something so stupid," or silly or selfish or mean or cruel or whatever. All those things are going to come up. But do remember that the function of thought is to take you out of what you are experiencing. It’s to dissipate attention. These stories are going to arise, but don’t get lost in them. And the way to avoid getting lost in them, the way to prevent that, is to be right in your body, to be in the experience of the body.

This is where we have the first foundation of mindfulness: the mindfulness of the body. Very, very useful. Now, that’s going to be in some cases a little uncomfortable. When you actually feel the regret right at the physical level. So if you feel a little nauseous or sick or really itchy or antsy, that’s the experience. Again, touch into it to the extent that you can.

As you do that you are going to become aware of emotions connected with this. Could be the emotions of regret and possibly shame and guilt and all of these different things. Just keep sitting in all of those and just let them be there along with all the physical feelings, physical sensations. And see what happens.

So you are going to have all those three components. You’re going to have the physical feeling, the sensations, the emotional feelings, and you are going to have all of those stories flying around. That’s what constitutes the experience. Just be in it. In attention. Totally awake to the extent you can. And let’s see what happens.


Emptiness is not other than form, Form is not other than emptiness.

Although this a long clip, stay with it.  Here Ken elicits experiences from his students as he unravels the last two lines of the classic four sentences of the Heart Sutra: Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.Emptiness is not other than form. Form is not other than emptiness.  It is not only Ken's teachings but the students' hesitant and sometimes halting descriptions of their experiences of these last two lines that I appreciated.

Emptiness is not other than form. Form is not other than emptiness. (from HSW03 00:49:17.0 - 01:02:55.)

(download into iTunes)

Emptiness is form. So whether it's full or empty, it's still an experience. So now this is good, we're all clear here. We have form and we have emptiness.

On this Hakuin says:

Rubbish! A useless collection of junk. Don't be trying to teach apes to climb trees. These goods have been gathering dust on the shelves for two- thousand years.

He goes on:

A bush warbler pipes tentatively in the spring breeze, by the peach tree a thin mist hovers in the warm sun. A group of young girls, cicada heads and mock eyebrows with blossom sprays one over each brocade shoulder.

So we have form which is experience and emptiness which is the space in which experience arises. We can't say what it is, but there's this space in which experience arises.

And when we hear form is emptiness we say, "Okay, form doesn't mean these solid things, it means that what arises in experience arises in this space. And it's there but it's not there at the same time."

And when we hear emptiness is form, we go, "That's fine, there is this space that allows everything to be. Makes it possible."

Emptiness is not other than form. Well we started off with things are not what they seem, which is form is emptiness. Now we come to emptiness is not form, which means emptiness is not what it seems.That is it is actually a fullness rather than an emptiness. But now we get emptiness is not other than form. Well if you've looked at what happened, we started off with thinking that experience was very solid. And then we heard, form is emptiness, so now we think that we've come to see that experience isn't a solid as we thought it was. So we're inclined to think probably that, you know, experience just doesn't really exist. Then we get the next line, emptiness is form, which actually says, "No you really do experience things." And you do experience lots of things. So we're cool, there's emptiness and there's experience. That's nice. We have these two, we're clear about that.

And now we've got this third line, emptiness is not other than form. Well, this is very troubling because now it says that these two things, experience and emptiness, they're really not different. How do you feel about that? Anybody? I mean having experience and emptiness, that's okay, we can sort of play with that. But experience and emptiness, they're really not different, how does that feel? Anybody? Yes?

Student: Well, it seems sort of expansive if you're going from the sense of emptiness is all this fullness.

Ken: Could you hand the microphone, please. Please say that again.

Student: It seems kind of expansive in the...if you're going from the sense that emptiness is a really all this fullness and...well, all right I don't know, now I forgot what I was going. Is it on ?

Ken: Yes.

Student: That then you have this sense that experience is related whatever you said to emptiness. Then it's huge and also chaotic and full and it's really pretty exciting.

Ken: Okay, so it opens up possibilities. Yeah, okay. Right, anybody else? All the way up here.

Student: It feels like another nail in the coffin. [Laughter]

Ken: Yours or mine?

Student: Mine.

Ken: That's fine, I don't worry about that. Say more.

Student: Well, you know the emptiness is form--hello--form is emptiness pulls the rug out for me, the solidity that I assign to my experience of things.

Ken: Okay. Student: Then emptiness is form; what does that do for me? It allows me to relax, it allows me to relax in what it is I am experiencing. And then when it says, form is not other than emptiness, it--

Ken: Actually it's emptiness is not other than form, some dif...

Student: Okay, all right. If ever I thought there was an alternative that I was going to escape from, this whole conversation. It's [quietly] no. [Ken laughs]Student: There's no escape, it's sort of taking my head. I feel a hand taking my head and going, "There."And then I get that, "No, no, no" there.

Ken: So it's pointing you very, very precisely. Okay, so big fullness, many possibilities, pointing right at it. Anybody else?

Student: So it took me a long time to sort get to the point where I could actually say it was a bit of a relief, you know thinking about it at all. Because in the beginning, very honestly it was absolutely terrifying. When I first encountered this emptiness is form, form is emptiness, I just thought "What?" [Ken laughs softly] It undid me completely, it was just like, you know, the Zen koan that stops you dead in your tracks and you don't even know how to think at all. And then it was really rather terrifying. Actually. I mean I worked with it for a very long time and I went--because I have a tendencies of fear and anxiety about my world in general--I went into this completely nihilistic place where my world became undone for me completely, whenever I tried to think about emptiness.

Ken: Okay.

Student: I really went down to a terrifying space where the world dissolved and I couldn't have a sense of matter, at all. Myself or the validity of anything else. And it became a very painful space. It's taken a very long time where I have now gotten to the place where the two...the possibility of, that word emptiness really bothers me. I don't know there has to be a different word, translation for the word, shunyata than emptiness because the word implying less than something took, was where I went. And as I said I have this tendency to fall into nihilism and it was very frightening and I got very depressed and really freaked out. And it took a bit a very long time to come up to a warmer space where I just threw the word emptiness out all together. To the point of the possibilities of it being something else other than what I thought it was.

Ken: Okay.

Student: And that was very meaningful for me and I didn't even want to share that because I know that , he didn't even come today there was a friend of mine who was gonna come today who went down into that fairly recently and I told him it was long process but it was worth working with, because its one of those practitioner's down falls that happens to some people, depending on the type of your mind. And that you know you can get to this possibility where the fullness that it has these incredible possibilities that it wasn't meaning what my interpretation of the word emptiness meant at all. And then I felt like I was that ll these possibilities came up and it was really very, you know very. I feel like I can work with something and I got more stable. [Laughs]

Ken: Okay. So emptiness is form or emptiness is not other than form. We have these two opposites, seeming opposites, emptiness and experience. A lot of people take issue with the word emptiness. It's actually the right translation, in both Sanskrit and Tibetan. Tibetan is stong-pa-nyid. If you have an empty box you say gong-stong-pa-nyid. Same in Sanskrit, I don't know Sanskrit but it's wonderful whoever came up with the word was also a genius. I like him, or her or whoever it was.

And it teaches in a strange way the value of nothing. Nothing is what makes everything possible. You can't fill a glass that is already full. So if it's already full you can't use it.

So we have this emptiness and this experience and it seems that we have these two poles but now we have this emptiness is not other than form, that says these two poles are not two poles they're one and the same. In other words this opposition we thought was there isn't what it seems. And as someone said earlier, when you allow the experience and the no thingness of experience just to be there, then all kinds of possibilities open up. Don't have to make things one way or the other. Okay, that seems like a very good place to stop at this point. But Avalokiteshvara doesn't shut up at this point. He says, "Form is not other than emptiness." Now what happens? What's your experience when you hear those lines? My sense is that something in you goes, tilt!

It's just like what? Or huh? Anybody have that experience? Yeah. And this is exactly what those lines are designed to do. They lead you through this process. Things are not what they seem, okay we can live with that? Emptiness is not what it seems. Well that's good because I didn't really like that anyway. Opposition is not what it seems, hmm okay, that's all right. Nothing is not what it seems and now there is nothing left to stand on. Nothing to hold on to. That's why I think these lines are so brilliant because they leave you with absolutely nothing to hold on to. How is that for you? Yes?

Student: It feels like I have no feet.

Ken: Exactly, no feet, no ground, nothing. Yes?

Student: It's like walking through a doorway that's dark on the other side.

Ken: Doorway that's dark on the other side. Hmm for you it's walking

Student: I mean I don't even know if there is a floor.

Ken: You don't even know if there is a floor. Yes, I've been in rooms like that. Anybody else? It kind of stops everything doesn't it? And that's really the point of these lines. It doesn't matter if hear them for the first time or the thousandth time. They always stop the mind. And open the possibility of just experiencing what's there, which is the point of practice? Hakuin has this to say about it. (page 59)

A nice hot kettle of stew.
He ruins it by dropping a couple of rat turds in.
(The rat turds are form and emptiness.)
It's no good pushing delicacies at a man with a full belly.
Striking aside waves to look for water when the waves are water.
Forms don't hinder emptiness, emptiness is the tissue of form.
Emptiness isn't the destruction of form.
Form is the flesh of emptiness.
Inside the Dharma gates where form and emptiness are not two.
A lone turtle with painted eyebrows stands in the evening breeze.

Yeah it's typical Zen.